“Today it is generally sufficient that (truths or ideas) bear the stamp of science to receive a sort of privileged credit, because we have faith in science. But this faith does not differ essentially from religious faith. In the last resort, the value which we attribute to science depends upon the idea which we collectively form of its nature and role in life; that is as much as to say that it expresses a state of public opinion. In all social life, in fact, science rests upon opinion.” – Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is considered, by many, as the founding father of sociology. As the son of a Jewish rabbi, he grew up in France with the expectation of following in not only his father’s foot steps, but grandfather’s and great grandfather’s foot steps as well. He was not inclined to follow the ecumenical path. Instead he pursued a career in education. While studying the theories of education and instruction, he began to define his own approach to the interactions of the individual with society and its institutions. This became the architecture of modern sociology.
Durkheim chose a personal path away from his Jewish upbringing. He did not abandon is religion, but he embraced agnosticism as a way to explain religion. He did decide that agnosticism was more acceptable than embracing a system of normative values and traditions that was not grounded on empirical evidence. Durkheim sought to bring scientific rigor to the discussion of religion. His efforts were not to prove or disprove the evidence of God or a high power mandating religious devotion and piety. He sought to ground religion in rational thought by proving that it is a byproduct of society. He viewed religion as a system which defined morality and thus set the boundaries of social order (Mazman, 2008, p. 10).
Durkheim’s contributions to the sociological study of religion span across different academic disciplines. He was a student of “Theodule Ribot, the widely recognized father of French psychology, and Charles Renouvier, one of France’s leading philosophers,” according to Mestrovic (1989, p. 256). Mestrovic also notes that all three men were influenced Arthur Schopenhaure, the German philosopher, who challenged the social structure in Germany. Ribot, Renouvier, and others rendered critical perspectives on his work. As a result, he could not help but test and evaluate his theories against the backdrop of the academic discipline of the humanities. This proved to be a strong influence on his approach as he developed his framework for explaining the influence of social consciousness on religion.
Durkheim’s work, Le Suicide, looked at the difference in social control the religious leaders of the Catholics, Jews, and Protestants maintained over their congregants. His study analyzed the rates of suicide and discovered that Catholics and Jews were generally less likely to commit the act. Based on these statistics, he concluded that the Catholic and Jewish systems’ control over their adherents positively impacted the lower suicide rates. He posited that dogmatic prohibition acted as a restraining mechanism bourn of a social taboos and attitudes toward the act. He also believed that the rigor of the religious practice (communal gathering, rites, sacred practices, etc.) was born of a moral framework devised for social order and canonized in religious practice. He also theorized on the relation of the sacred and profane nature of religion and its relation to society.
Durkheim “believed that the entire world of human experience could be divided into two categories: the sacred, what is of ultimate concern, and the profane, what is considered ordinary and mundane” (Kurtz, 2007, pp. 21-22). Framing social discussion in these terms allowed sociologists an opportunity to see how an individual could value certain behavior and practice while showing disdain for other behavior and practice. This division stemmed from Durkheim’s emersion into Jewish culture where the religious world clearly defines the not only the difference between the two ideas (sacred and profane), but gives examples of the two in the Levitical laws. The Book of Leviticus is the foundation of Jewish law and the origin of practice for proper living.
The Jewish narrative starts with people who needed law to guide them. The impartation of that law came from God via Moses on the stone tablets. Those laws are known as the ‘Ten Commandments’ Durkheim would argue that social disorder caused religion to grow in order to bring appropriate limitations and laws into being. Social order was achieved by stating the order was ordained by God and enshrined in religious practice. Thus the strong and, often times, overriding authority of the religious leaders came into being. The governing of the people takes a backseat to the functional priority of the tabernacle and temple. In ancient Jewish society, priests were the first office established and judges were established as a later office. The social need for organization was fulfilled through the religious structure in Jewish culture.
Durkheim also observed the corollary between diversity and unity. His “observation that the world system is becoming simultaneously more unified and diverse is instructive. As the world changes, so will the various ethical systems taught by the religious traditions; the ethical transformations may be riddled with contradiction as the social: We are coming together, but resistance to the globalization of human life is as fierce as are the forces of unification” (Kurtz, pp. 170-171). Thus out of society come the beliefs that define both the practice of religion and how the individual relates to the two structures (diversity and unity). The religion, society, and individual grow and advance together over time when all are linked through evolution.
Durkheim was viewed as an evolutionist by scholars that followed him. In the later part of his life, he examined ‘primitive’ societies to understand the linking and influence between religion, society, and the individual. At the root of primitive societies, like the Aboriginals of Australia, Durkheim noted the simplicity of sacred practices of religion and the organization of society. Individuals labored for subsistence and practiced simple religion within the basically organized society. He analyzed the progression toward more complex social structures and religious practices as individuals gained a greater level of consistency and stability in their lives. (Belier, 1999, pp. 37-38). Thus all three (religion, society, and the individual) evolved toward more tightly related and more complex relationships with each other. The theory was also being proven in the reverse during Durkheim’s lifetime in France.
France had cast off the bonds of religion, embracing secularism, following the French Revolution. Durkheim observed the decline of French society into religious atheism followed by social atheism. He was a socialist at heart, but he clearly understood the value of religion in the construct of civil society. Behrent (2008, p. 222) explains Durkheim’s postulates this way, “Durkheim’s most innovative insights, including the claim that ‘the idea of society is the soul of religion,’ his argument concerning the dualism of human life, and the assertion that individualism is a modern religion” came as a result of observing the disconnection that occurred after the revolution while the new social order was attempting to establish its moorings. He pushed the French academic community toward a utopian ideal which elevated the individual in association with other individuals above the prior structure of corporation.
In association, one maintains or attains status through a devotion to self and seeking the betterment of others. In corporation, one is subservient to the goals and objectives of the body. The aspirations, desires, and needs of the individual all become subordinate to the corporate framework (Behrent, pp. 223-224). The French Revolution recast society apart from the traditional agency of the Catholic Church and the estate based order. Durkheim was a key architect in this new system of association. His socialist leaning argument was for the freedom of the individual to form a personal religion independent of the past society and its religious norms. His advocacy for the individual also led to the idea of a liberal social structure; a social structure that adapts, changes, and grows as the individual does the same.
In a liberal society, the individuals in the society are growing alongside and within the boundaries of the society. Durkheim sought to balance the needs of individual alongside the needs of the society to avoid unnecessary subordination. Cladis (1996, p. 6) explains his approach this way, “His is . . . wary of those social and political arrangements that systematically subordinate the individual to what may be call the ‘common good’ or ‘national interests’.” Durkheim maintains that corporate beliefs, such as those common to the religious experience and structure, serve to maintain a liberal society. “Durkheim understands that solidarity-including liberal solidarity-requires some set shared, authoritative beliefs and practices. This normative model of liberalism, then, describes individual rights and liberties as salient features of a social entrenched common good” (Cladis, p. 6). This understanding is the foundation that Durkheim uses to wrap religion under the blanket of society, thereby defining its origins as a function for the common good.
In summary, Durkheim’s upbringing in the Jewish culture defined his sense of social balance. His efforts to define religion in terms of human need rather than divine mandate defined a social construct that helped guide France through the upheaval of the Revolution. His study of primitive religion supported a theory of growth at the individual level and social level simultaneously out of a need to address the more complex issues confronting those societies over time. He also advocated the formation of religion within the individual to break free from the prior estate system France overthrew during the Revolution. Durkheim’s works with regard to religion on these levels within sociology have proved durable over time. They represent the foundation and framework by which sociology explains how religion works in various setting today.
Behrent, M. (2008). The Mystical Body of Society: Religion and Association in Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought.Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(2), 219-243. Retrieved April 10, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.
Belier, W. (1999). DURKHEIM, MAUSS, CLASSICAL EVOLUTIONISM AND THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 11(1), 24. Retrieved April 10, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.
Cladis, M. (1996). What can we hope for? Rousseau and Durkheim on human nature. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 32(4), 456-472. Retrieved April 15, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.
Durkheim, E. (2010, April 10). Online quotation. Retrieved from http://www.emiledurkheim.com/emile_durkheim_quotes.htm
Kurtz, L. (2007). Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Mazman, Ä°. (2008). KNOWLEDGE AND RELIGION IN SOCIETY: A COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE. Ekev Academic Review,12(36), 1-14. Retrieved April 10, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.
MeÅ¡troviÄ‡, S. (1989). Reappraising Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life in the Context of Schopenhauer’s Philosophy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28(3), 255. Retrieved April 10, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.